King Hu's martial-arts masterwork Dragon Inn restored to glory

Dragon Inn is a slow-burning, close-quarters thriller.

Dragon Inn is a slow-burning, close-quarters thriller.

King Hu is to martial-arts movies what Alfred Hitchcock is to thrillers: a master whose countless imitators only serve to strengthen his singular legacy.

1967's Dragon Inn is one of two classics recently restored by Janus Films, the other being his three-hour opus A Touch of Zen. The former's comparatively brief runtime of 111 minutes belies a wide thematic scope.

Above all else, Dragon Inn is a slow-burning, close-quarters thriller. In the Ming Dynasty circa 1457, an espionage agency is controlled by eunuchs seeking to finish off their opponents' bloodline for good. One group takes residency in the eponymous inn during its empty offseason. They settle in, with the understanding that the innkeeper is to allow no other guests during their five-to-ten-day stay.

They're soon joined by others, of course, and when representatives of different factions converge on the edge-of-the-desert locale, bloodshed is as much a certainty as it is in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.

That traces of Dragon Inn exist in The Hateful Eight's DNA speaks to the endless interplay between wuxia and westerns — a sort of Google Translate that somehow continues to yield richer, more poetic results. Dragon Inn is something like the Ur-text, though, which is why it's been remade twice and also features so prominently in Tsai Ming-liang's elegiac Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Like westerns, wuxia (martial arts) movies are often imitated in a way that fails to capture their restless spirit.

Here Hu wasn't working from a template but creating one — Dragon Inn's swordplay isn't there to live up to genre expectations. Instead of balletic fights tossed in for their own sake, the combat here punctuates a long buildup based on back-and-forth between characters, each doing their utmost not to reveal their true aims.

Two scenes in particular — a pair of standoffs over a bowl of noodles and a bottle of poisoned alcohol — are the kind of prolonged set pieces that Tarantino has famously (and effectively) co-opted of late. Hu teases out the tension in every exchange, his characters passing around the bad batch of liquor as though it were a loaded gun in a game of Russian Roulette — that only half of them know they're playing. Hu finds humor and intensity in these veiled attempts by the belligerents to covertly dispose of one another. Their hatred is as petty as it is lethal.

Dialogue-heavy sequences like that allow him to exercise a high level of restraint when it comes to actual action. For a good long while, only brief skirmishes serve as prelude to the climactic battle. That fight takes place high enough in the hills to be buffeted by actual clouds, a serene backdrop to a final confrontation that itself is marked by dueling monologues.

Dragon Inn is doubly worth seeking out for anyone whose experience with old movies of this sort is confined to the realm of bad dubbing and distracting sound effects. Dragon Inn has more in common with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than Saturday-morning kung fu. In few other films is the verbal sparring as powerful as the swordfights, the heated exchanges landing as forcefully as the flaming arrows.

Dragon Inn
Directed by King Hu
Opens Friday, Lagoon Cinema